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A glimmer of hope has emerged for millions of rural Kenyans still living in darkness, with 118 countries, including Kenya, committing to tripling the globe’s renewable energy capacity by 2030 at COP28, hinting at the possibility of giving them access to reliable energy sources soon.
Close to 15 million Kenyans, many of whom live in rural areas, continue to rely on kerosene to light their homes and firewood and charcoal for cooking, as they remain without access to reliable energy sources, despite the State’s efforts to reduce energy access gap.
In Akele-Benga, a quaint village in western Kenya’s Homa Bay County, ordinary days are forever enchanting, but as the sun sets beneath the horizon, the village’s mystical allure begins to wane as it becomes engulfed in complete darkness. It is among the rural dwellings that still lack access to the national electricity grid.
The pledges by governments to increase the world’s renewable energy capacity while weaning off fossil fuels, could come with solutions for residents of such Kenyan villages, through increased investments in the renewable energy sector.
Kenya’s President William Ruto alongside other African leaders who made their national statements at the global conference in Dubai called for increased investments in renewable energy on the continent and improved climate finance to address the huge energy gap in Africa.
While many people living in areas unserved by the national grid rely on kerosene for lighting, for a few, who can afford, solar systems are the closest they can get to having a stable energy source in their homes, but they are riddled with challenges which limit their affordability and use.
Kenya’s President William Ruto making his statement at COP28 in Dubai; Photo Credit – UNFCCC
Expensive solar systems
Rose Ondijo, a widow living in the village, procured one such set, on a pay-as-you-go (Paygo) basis like most people in the area, about two years ago, but before she could use it for even a year, it was repossessed by the company because she couldn’t continue paying for it.
“The economy is bad and I only rely on farming and small businesses to feed my children and meet their needs. Will I pay for the solar or fend for my children?” Rose asked.
Rose is not alone in her plight. Many people in this village have returned to fossil fuel use to light up their homes, after their attempts to transition to the greener solar systems were thwarted by their incapability to keep up with the payments.
“These solar systems are too expensive; I have to save for days to even afford the initial deposit. After the deposit, I have to keep paying every day for four years for the system to keep working. In these hard times, no one can afford that,” said Samwel Saka, who also resides in Akele-Benga village.
Depending on the package, these solar systems normally require a deposit of between Ksh2,000 ($13) and Ksh7,000 ($46) and daily installments of at least Ksh40 ($0.26) for 2 to 4 years. This isn’t much but for a place where the majority live on less than $2 a day, raising it may be an uphill task.
A beneficiary of a last mile electricity connectivity project in Kenya; Photo Credit – Nation Media Group
Anthony Osijo, chief financial officer of Bboxx, one of the companies selling the Paygo solar systems in Kenya, says the lack of subsidies or enough concessional finance for social enterprises such as theirs, makes the products way too expensive for the people who need them the most, and even the Paygo model doesn’t solve the problem.
“The problem with Paygo is that when you have things like Covid or drought and poor people can’t pay, the first thing they do is to go back to just trying to feed themselves, so they stop paying. Because they’d rather be in darkness than be hungry,” said Mr Osijo.
To avoid making losses, Mr Osijo said companies like Bboxx are now beginning to assess customers’ ability to pay before giving them the Paygo solar systems – a model which could lock out many more rural Kenyans, keeping them in the dark for much longer.
According to him, increasing access to the crucial off-grid systems for those who need them most will require collaboration between government and private sector, and more concessional financing and investments for businesses in the industry.
“The problem cannot be solved by the private sector alone. It has to be solved by having the right government infrastructure in place and subsidy programs, because at the end of the day the people that suffer the most are the people who can afford it the least,” Mr Osijo said.
As the rural Kenyans await the fruits of the COP28 commitment to boost investments in clean energy, some may be connected to the grid soon after President Ruto entered a deal with the Indonesian government to invest $1 billion in a geothermal power plan in Kenya, which will boost electricity supply to the grid.
But for others, off-grid solar systems remain the solution to their energy access problem, if only they could afford them. For them, COP28 commitment should translate to real investments and financing for the off-grid solar energy sector.
This story was published as part of Climate Tracker’s COP28 Climate Justice Reporting Fellowship